News analysis: New laws alarm campaign groups

Indira Das-Gupta

Legislation brought in to combat specific threats looks like being applied more widely.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act came quietly into force last month, slipping under the radar of many charities. Although sections of the Act deliberately target animal rights groups, critics argue it could have equally serious ramifications for other organisations and requires a cross-sector response.

"At present, it might relate only to animal rights protesters," warns Simon Dally, who acts as a voluntary legal adviser to animal rights groups. "But there's no reason to suppose it won't be extended to other groups. Indeed, section 149 of the Act makes provision for such an extension."

In fact, Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, warns that the Act constitutes a significant erosion of civil liberties that should send a chill down the spine of the entire sector. He says: "Under the new Act, you can be arrested simply for handing out a leaflet calling for a boycott against a company, because causing anything that can be interpreted as economic harm is illegal.

"It has effectively criminalised all forms of protest against animal experimentation. But we refuse to succumb to defeatism, so we are in talks about creating a coalition of animal rights groups to pose a legal challenge."

Shot on sight

Meanwhile, Fathers 4 Justice has been warned by Scotland Yard that its demonstrators could be shot on sight if they attempt to repeat stunts such as scaling government buildings dressed as superheroes.

Tyler is not alone in his support for a sector-wide movement to tackle the issue. The Stop the War coalition is organising a demonstration in London next month to defend the right to protest and highlight the erosion of civil liberties. And Mike Lewis, media co-ordinator at the Campaign Against Arms Trade, believes campaigning organisations should work together to oppose the restrictions that are creeping up on them. He explains: "We are definitely in uncharted waters at the moment, and it's something that the sector as a whole needs to address.

"There should be some kind of effort to pool resources to launch a legal fight, if needed. I doubt that will happen until there has been a serious challenge to civil liberties, although that has already happened for the animal rights movement.

"It's more worrying for smaller organisations because they don't have the means to keep paying legal fees if their members are arrested. I think that's why they have been quicker off the mark than the larger organisations."

In contrast, the NCVO says the Act need not affect the ability of organisations to campaign effectively. Chris Stalker, head of campaigns and communications at the umbrella body, says: "High-visibility, non-violent direct action is just one of a range of campaigning tactics organisations can deploy."

Beyond remit

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act might have come into effect only on 1 July, but it has already been applied to circumstances beyond its original remit.

The section in the Act that creates an exclusion zone around Parliament was drawn up ostensibly to prevent terrorist attacks. But the Metropolitan Police has already applied for permission to create an exclusion zone around the ExCeL Centre in London's Docklands when the DSEi arms fair is held there next month, effectively blocking out anti-weapons demonstrators.

Dally says: "I don't believe it's just an unfortunate coincidence that recent developments have had a negative impact on campaigners. There are many examples of the present Labour Government drafting laws so wide-reaching that they affect groups other than those they were originally targeted at."

The Protection from Harassment Act has just been widened to allow companies as well as individuals to take out injunctions, paving the way for businesses to make it illegal for protestors even to approach their premises.

In another example, the police's stop-and-search powers were used against protestors at the last demonstration against the arms fair, in London in 2003.

Dally adds: "Only recently have people started to condemn the stop-and-search powers, but they were actually introduced in 2001. Almost every year since the 11 September terrorist attacks, a new law has been introduced to tackle terrorism that has also cracked down on human rights.

"Like most people, I wouldn't mind if I was stopped and my bag was searched before I went on the Tube. But I do mind when laws supposedly created to combat terrorism are used to stifle civil liberties."

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